CORNELIA WAS A VERY GRAND LADY INDEED. AS THE second daughter of Scipio Africanus, she belonged to one of Rome’s wealthiest and most aristocratic families. Well educated, she cultivated intellectual pursuits and, Plutarch writes, “always had Greeks and literary men about her.”
Her lifestyle was one of some splendor, although, like many millionairesses of taste, she dressed with elegant simplicity (as the poet Horace famously put it, simplex munditiis, or “casually chic”). Once, she was entertaining a woman friend from Campania, where bling or deluxe display was de rigueur. Her guest drew particular attention to the fine jewelry she was wearing. Cornelia waited until her two sons came home from school, and then said, “These are my jewels.”
Noblemen’s daughters seldom married for love, and the Scipiones were no exception. Cornelia’s husband, Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, had been a political opponent of her father but had objected to the attempts of Cato and his friends to bring her uncle Lucius to trial for corruption. Cornelia was his reward. When they married, sometime after Africanus’s death in disappointed retirement, she was in her teens and Gracchus was in his forties.
Despite the disparity in their ages, the union was a happy one and Cornelia gave birth to twelve children, although only three reached adulthood—a daughter and the boys, Tiberius and Gaius. Gracchus loved his wife, as a curious anecdote bears witness. One day he discovered two snakes on his bed. Being a typically superstitious Roman, he saw this as an alarming prodigy and consulted the appropriate religious authority. The advice he received could not have been more awkward if that had been the intention. He was neither to kill the snakes nor to let them go; rather, he should kill one or the other of them. An unhelpful caveat was added: if the male snake was killed, he would soon die, and if the female snake was killed, then Cornelia would die. Because Gracchus was so much older than his wife, he decided that it was fairer to sacrifice himself, so he killed the male and let the female slither away.
Whatever the truth of the story, Gracchus did die sometime after his second consulship in 163, leaving his young widow to bring up the children alone. We have observed that Africanus conducted himself as the equal of an eastern monarch, and his daughter was the nearest thing the Republic had to an international royal celebrity. The pharaoh of Egypt, Ptolemy VIII, offered her his hand in marriage. Nicknamed Physcon (Greek for “sausage,” “potbelly,” or “bladder”), he was an unappealing prospect, and Cornelia politely declined. She decided not to marry again, but to manage her estates and devote herself to the education of her children. She lived the blameless life of a Roman matron. It was unusual for aristocratic widows to remain unmarried, but Cornelia was that rare thing in the ancient world—an independent woman.
HOW CORNELIA BROUGHT up her sons is uncertain, but at some point in the third century educational practice in Rome changed. Originally, it was based on an apprenticeship supervised by the father—in working families probably linked to agriculture or a trade, in more aristocratic homes to military training and an induction into public life in the Forum. Gradually, a Greek model came to be followed. Greek-speaking tutors were employed (for example, the poets Livius Andronicus and Ennius), who taught both Latin and Greek. This is no doubt what a wealthy Hellenistic family such as the Scipios would have done.
At about the same time, elementary and secondary schools opened, to which Cornelia could have sent Tiberius and Gaius. In that case, a paedagogus, usually a slave, would have taken them to and from their classes and generally supervised their behavior. A secondary school master, or grammaticus, taught language and poetry, and was sometimes a distinguished intellectual in his own right. For children in their mid to late teens, the principle of apprenticeship was maintained, with boys being attached for a time to a leading senator, rather like today’s interns. Oratory was a highly developed art form and was essential to a political career. Teachers of rhetoric offered advanced training in the elaborate techniques of persuasion.
THE STATUS OF women in ancient Rome was mixed. Their main task was to bear legitimate children, and chastity outside the marriage bed was essential to achieving that aim. They had no political rights; they could not attend, address, or vote at citizen assemblies, and they could not hold public office.
As a rule, a girl married young, between twelve and fifteen years of age, but her husband was often a man in his twenties or older. Irrespective of whether she had passed puberty (generally thought to begin in the fourteenth year), it seems that she was expected to have, or perhaps to endure, sex immediately upon marriage. There were different kinds of contract. A wife might be passed into the manus, or hands, of her husband, but this was becoming increasingly unpopular. Otherwise, she remained under her father’s nominalpatria potestas or, if he was dead, she controlled her affairs sui iuris, by her own legal authority, albeit under the guidance of a guardian or tutor. This was Cornelia’s situation.
Divorce was easy, and because of the age difference there was a large number of widows. While many remarried, Romans rather admired the univira, the woman who, like Cornelia, stayed true to the memory of one man.
(Boys, of course, enjoyed greater license than girls. They were expected to sow their wild oats, within reason. Once, when Cato saw a young nobleman emerge from a brothel, he told him, “Keep up the good work.” When he came across the young man a short time later, in similar circumstances, he remarked, “When I complimented you on ‘good work’ I didn’t mean you should make this place your home.”)
In spite of legal constraints, women were able to play an important role in family and public life if they wished, provided they obeyed the conventions of modesty and respectability. Within her household, a wife was the domina, or mistress, and she was regarded on an equal level with her husband. She led a full social life, visiting friends, patronizing the Games, and attending her husband’s dinner parties. She was able to exert political influence through her husband, whose career she promoted. Although marriages were often cool, professional affairs, we know of many happy couples.
Cornelia was not alone in seeing so many of her children die in their early years. The duty to produce progeny was hampered by primitive medical knowledge. The upper classes seem to have practised birth control and abortion, although it is unclear how effective their methods were. Techniques such as washing out the vagina, coating it with old olive oil, inserting sponges soaked in vinegar, or jumping up and down after intercourse are unlikely to have done much good. Doctors did their best to encourage fertility and were not meant to facilitate abortion, but in Hippocratic medicine a substance known as misy was claimed to prevent pregnancy for a year; unfortunately, we do not know what it is (some have suggested yellow copperas). Various plants were commonly used for birth control, and some have been found in modern times to have contraceptive properties—Daucus carota, or Queen Anne’s lace, for example.
Women who broke the rules of propriety received no mercy. In the first century, a certain Sempronia met the full force of male condemnation. It has been speculated that she was Cornelia’s granddaughter and, whether or not this was so, was similarly well-endowed with charm and intellect. She married well and received a good education in Greek and Latin literature. She wrote poetry, had a ready wit, and was an amusing conversationalist.
However, according to the historian Gaius Sallustius Crispus (whom we know as Sallust), there was another side to her personality:
She had greater skill in lyre-playing and dancing than there is any need for a respectable woman to acquire, besides many other accomplishments such as minister to dissipation. There was nothing that she set a smaller value on than seemliness and chastity, and she was as careless of her reputation as she was of her money. Her passions were so ardent that she more often made advances to men than they did to her. Many times … she had broken a solemn promise, repudiated a debt by perjury, and been an accessory to murder.
It is a curiously unconvincing passage: venial sins such as being a lively partygoer are gradually amplified into an unsubstantiated accusation of involvement in murder, as if one thing naturally led to the other. Some of Sempronia’s excesses echo those of Tanaquil and Tullia, perhaps because historians from the late Republic borrowed her traits in order to flesh out their portraits of those early fictionalized queens. As in their cases, Sempronia’s real offense seems to have been that she openly supported a dissident politician, an impermissible intervention into an exclusively masculine sphere of activity. Charges of sexual promiscuity and criminality, invented or exaggerated, were her punishment, for they would destroy her social standing.
CORNELIA MARRIED HER daughter, another Sempronia of course, to her celebrated cousin, Scipio Aemilianus. Her two boy jewels were the center of her attention. They shared a family resemblance, but their personalities were very different. Tiberius, the elder by nine years, was “gentle and sedate,” their biographer Plutarch writes, “while Gaius was highly strung and impetuous. When addressing the assembly one stood composedly on the spot, while the other was the first Roman to walk up and down the speakers’ platform and pull his toga off his shoulder as he spoke.” As regards food and lifestyle, Tiberius lived simply, while Gaius was ostentatious and picky.
As descendants of the most famous Roman of his day, the young men had distinguished political and military futures ahead of them. Cornelia used to tease them, complaining that she was still known as Scipio Aemilianus’s mother-in-law, and not as the mother of the Gracchi. Tiberius’s career nearly ended as soon as it began. He was appointed quaestor, or finance officer, to a consular general in Spain. The campaign against guerrilla insurgents went very badly. The Romans were comprehensively outmaneuvered and took refuge in their camp. Hearing that the enemy expected reinforcements, the consul had all fires put out and led his army of twenty thousand men out into the dead of night. He hoped to find safety at a remote former campsite. However, the Spaniards followed and soon had the Romans at their mercy. The consul, seeing that his situation was hopeless, agreed a surrender, to which he bound himself by oath. Thanks to his father, who had once commanded in Spain, Tiberius had excellent connections and played a leading part in negotiating the terms.
The Senate was outraged when it heard what had happened. Legions did not surrender. A tribunal with Scipio Aemilianus among its members ruled that the treaty should not stand. But sworn agreements could not be abrogated with impunity. In expiation for the religious offense of the breach, the consul was sent back naked and bound and handed over to the Spaniards. (They refused to accept him, in a faint echo of the Caudine Forks fiasco.)
Tiberius got off scot-free, despite the fact that he had been instrumental in making the treaty. Some put it down to the influence of Scipio, his adoptive uncle. His popularity with the troops may have counted for something, too. Cicero writes that the scandal was “a constant source of grief and fear to Tiberius Gracchus; and this estranged him, brave and famous as he was, from the wisdom of the Senators.” He was not simply unnerved but mortified that his fides, his good faith, had been sabotaged.
Tiberius’s politics changed. From being a political conservative, he began to promote the interests of the People. There was one issue in particular that drew his attention—land reform.
ON THE LONG overland journey to Spain to take up his quaestor-ship, Tiberius had passed through Tuscany on his way north. He was struck by how few people there were in the fields. Those he did see, tilling the soil or tending flocks, were foreign slaves rather than native Italians or Roman citizens. On his return in 137, he looked further into the matter.
What he found was a situation that needed to be addressed. As Rome vanquished its enemies in the peninsula, it confiscated a proportion of the land of defeated communities. Some of this was made over to smallholders and coloniae, but the rest remained ager publicus, or publicly owned land. After the end of the struggle with Carthage, the authorities had been preoccupied with new wars in Greece, Asia Minor, and Spain; and in southern Italy a great deal of ager publicus remained undistributed.
Wealthy landowners, especially profiteers from the lucrative wars of the second century, bought up the farms of soldiers who had been absent for years on distant campaigns and also silently expropriated public land. Hannibal had laid waste thousands on thousands of acres and substantial investment was needed to rebuild the farming industry. Large estates, or latifundia, were created rather than single farms. They were more often devoted to animal husbandry than to the labor-intensive production of crops and were staffed by teams of slaves.
The net result of these changes was the gradual disappearance of the sturdy peasant farmer, who earned enough to qualify for recruitment into the army. (As we have seen, the very poor—capite censi, or the “head count”—were not allowed to serve.) This applied not only to Romans but also to the citizens of allied communities, liable as they were to provide troops for the Republic’s wars. One obvious solution to the problem was to open the legions to the head count, but it was a firm and traditional belief that only those with property, who had something to lose, would fight bravely for their country. So that exit was barred.
Tiberius was not alone in believing that the situation was untenable and urgently needed correction. Thoughtful Romans were less worried about economic change in the countryside (for they increasingly imported grain and other foodstuffs from northern Africa and Sicily) than they were about the decline of the social class that stocked the legions. They also feared the large and growing population of disaffected slaves who were replacing freemen throughout the peninsula. This was no nightmarish fantasy but a real threat, for in 133 a great slave revolt broke out in Sicily that took more than a year to put down. Senior politicians supported change, and a friend of Aemilianus had suggested reform when he was consul a few years previously, but he met with furious resistance and withdrew his plans; for this he was rewarded with the sarcastic nickname Sapiens, or the Wise. Many senators were illegally squatting on ager publicus and were vehemently opposed to any interference.
Tiberius decided that the time for action had arrived. He was too junior a figure to get his hands on the official levers of power as praetor or consul, but he was well liked by the People and was entitled to stand for tribune. As already explained, the tribuneship was not a governmental position conferring imperium, and appointments were made by the concilium plebis. Its purpose was to promote popular sovereignty and public accountability. Tribunes could propose laws and summon meetings of the Senate. However, they had become an accepted part of the political scene and were sometimes even used by the Senate to veto the plans of unruly elected officials. They were not as radical as they used to be, until the arrival of Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus.
He was elected one of the ten tribunes for 133 and put forward a land-reform bill, or lex agraria. He knew there would be fierce and self-interested opposition in the Senate and was careful to design a balanced package. He renewed an old law, which had fallen into disuse, banning the occupation of more than five hundred iugera of land—that is, about three hundred acres. But he sweetened the pill by allowing an additional two hundred and fifty iugera for each landowner’s son (the concession was withdrawn after it failed to win over critics) and by offering all the land as freehold in perpetuity. Also, the fertile fields of Campania were excluded from the legislation. The territory so reclaimed was to be distributed to Roman citizens in up to thirty-iugera parcels. These could not be sold (although presumably they could be inherited), and a small rent would be payable.
So far, so reasonable. But Tiberius then made a fateful decision. A convention had grown up that all new legislation was first presented to the Senate for its consideration before being taken to the Assembly for enactment. The bold tribune decided to sidestep the obstructive Senate and proceed directly to the People. This was legal but highly unusual: such a thing had not happened for almost exactly a century.
Tiberius ran a vigorous campaign to promote his proposal, which was hugely popular. In an ancient equivalent of a poster campaign, graffiti were written on walls, monuments, and porticoes or colonnades, which were busy gathering places. “Wild beasts who roam over Italy all have caves and lairs to lurk in,” he would say, “but the men who fight and die for Italy enjoy the common air and light, but nothing else.” This high-flying oratory went down well with his audiences, but a young fellow tribune, Marcus Octavius, indicated that he intended to use his official powers to veto the legislation. Tiberius did his best to make him change his mind. He pointed out that Octavius was a large-scale occupier of ager publicus, but that he would pay him from his own resources the value of any of his land that was confiscated.
All to no avail. Tiberius convened an Assembly in the Forum and had the clerk read the bill. Octavius told the man to be silent. Tiberius postponed the meeting to another day, and again tried to have the bill read, with the same result. He took his cause to the Senate in the Senate House nearby, where he was treated contemptuously. He hurried back to the Assembly, where he took his next fateful step. He announced a further postponement, but warned that he would not only put his bill to the vote but also table a motion on whether Octavius should continue to hold office. He was as good as his word, and at the following meeting the vote on Octavius’s deposition was taken, although there was a delay because the voting urns had been stolen. The ballot was conducted by tribes, and one after another they voted to remove Octavius. As each tribe reported, Tiberius turned to Octavius and asked him to reconsider his position. “Do not throw into chaos a project that is morally right and of the greatest utility to all Italy,” he pleaded. Octavius refused, and when a majority against him had been reached he was dragged down from the speakers’ platform. His friends rushed him away from the Forum or he might well have been lynched. The land-reform bill was then passed and a commission to implement it was established, of which the two Gracchus brothers were members.
At about this time the king of Pergamum died and, to avert a civil war, bequeathed his kingdom to Rome, which now became the province of Asia. The contents of the Pergamum treasury were paid into the Roman exchequer, and Tiberius had the bright idea of passing a law that distributed this money to the new smallholders, so that they could stock up on seed and equipment.
In his handling of the Octavius crisis, Tiberius had, once again, probably broken no law, but the deposition of a tribune was unprecedented. Even if land reform was a worthy cause—and many believed it was—it began to look as if its supporters were willing to subvert the constitution in order to achieve their ends. They had upset the delicate balance between the Assembly and the Senate, which had served the Republic well for centuries.
With all the postponed Assembly meetings, it was now summer and the victorious Tiberius feared that when he left office at the end of the year his law might be repealed before it had been put into full effect. All his good work would have gone for nothing. Also, he was worried about his security and, as an elected guardian of the People, his person was inviolable. He took his third and last fateful decision. Although once again it broke convention, he stood for a second year as tribune. For conservatives in the Senate, this was too much.
Voting began at the election, which was held on the Capitol, but order soon broke down. The presiding officer handed over to another tribune, who was a friend of Tiberius. Noisy objections were raised. Tiberius put off the voting until the next day. He and his followers got up early to occupy the assembly-place in front of the Temple of Jupiter Best and Greatest before the opposition arrived. When leaving his house, he accidentally stubbed his big toe on the threshold and blood was noticed leaking from his sandal—not a good omen.
A meeting of the Senate was also held that day in the tiny Temple of Fides, Good Faith, at the edge of the assembly-place. It was dominated by Tiberius’s enemies, in particular a cousin of his who was another of Africanus’s grandsons. This was Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica (“big nose”). A senior politician who had held all the great offices of state and was now pontifex maximus, or high priest, he had a high opinion of himself: at a noisy public meeting, he once said, “Be quiet, please, citizens. I know more about the public interest than you do.”
Nasica tried to persuade the consul to call a state of emergency, but the consul declined to use force or kill a citizen without trial. Meanwhile, a fight started outside between supporters of the different sides. Confusion reigned. The tribunes deserted their places, priests closed the Temple of Jupiter, and many people ran wildly about trying to escape. In the noise, Tiberius signaled that he was in personal danger by pointing to his head. This was reported to the Senate, which decided that the gesture meant that he wanted a diadem (a white cloth headband signifying royal power) and was aspiring to be king.
Throughout the history of the Republic, this ambition was the ultimate crime. Would-be tyrants deserved no mercy. Nasica seized his moment. “Since the Consul betrays the state, anyone who wants to save the constitution, follow me,” he declared. The pontifex maximus then pulled a fold of his toga over his head, as if he were about to conduct a sacrifice, and ran out of the temple followed by senators and their attendants.
The Gracchans were startled by the sight of so distinguished a company rushing at them and lost their nerve. Nasica and his people snatched the makeshift weapons with which their opponents had armed themselves—sticks, rods, and the like—and broke up the benches that had been laid out for the meeting. They then chased the Gracchans over the precipitous edges of the Capitoline Square. Somebody grabbed at Tiberius’s clothes. He let his toga fall and ran off. With bitter symbolism, he was caught, this (allegedly) potential despot, beside a cluster of statues of Rome’s kings. An assailant hit him on the head with a bench leg; others piled in, and the sacrosanct tribune was beaten to death. He was not quite thirty years old. When the riot was over, all the corpses were thrown into the Tiber under the cover of darkness.
The death of Tiberius was an earthquake that shook the pillars of the state. Reactions were contradictory. Tiberius’s cousin and the leading man of his day, the cultured Scipio Aemilianus, gave the deed his cautious approval. The Senate instructed the consuls for 132 to investigate and execute those who had conspired with Tiberius. However, Nasica was the object of popular fury and was challenged even in the Senate to justify his actions. His continued presence in Rome was an embarrassment. He was sent off on a foreign assignment and soon conveniently died in Pergamum.
Tellingly, no one challenged the land-reform legislation, and the implementation commission got on with its work unhindered. It was Tiberius’s methods, not so much his policies, that had incensed Rome’s élite. Furthermore, repeal could well lead to dangerous public disturbances. Best to leave well enough alone.
ONE DAY A Roman consul paid a visit to Teanum Sidicinum (modern Teano), an Oscan-speaking settlement on the borders of Samnium. His wife accompanied him, and said that she wanted to bathe in the men’s baths. (These seem to have been something of an attraction, and the remains of extensive baths can be seen by today’s visitors.) A certain Marcus Marius, the town treasurer, was instructed to send the bathers away so that she could have the place to herself. Later, she complained to her husband that the baths were not cleared quickly, and that they were not clean enough.
The consul had a stake planted in the main square and Marius, Teanum’s leading citizen, was led to it. Then his clothes were stripped off and he was whipped with rods. When news of this reached a nearby municipality, its Assembly passed a law forbidding anyone to use the public baths when a Roman elected official was in town.
Gaius Sempronius Gracchus told this story in a speech complaining of the outrageous behavior of senior Romans when traveling in Italy. It was not only officeholders who acted with criminal insolence. “I will give you a single example of the lawlessness of our young men, and their complete lack of self-control,” Gracchus said on another occasion. “Not many years ago a young man who had not yet held public office was sent as an envoy to the province of Asia. He was carried in a curtained litter. A herdsman from Venusia in southern Italy [presumably, the Roman was on his way to the port of Brundisium] met him and, not knowing who the passenger was, asked as a joke if the litter-bearers were carrying a dead body. The young man heard this. He ordered that the litter be set down and that the peasant be beaten to death with the leather thongs by which it was fastened.”
Rome’s allied communities were seething with resentment. They not only complained of arrogance by roaming dignitaries; they felt that the historic concordat between them and their conqueror all those centuries ago was breaking down.
The system of some one hundred and fifty bilateral treaties between Rome and each of them had worked well. As we have seen, they were obliged to supply troops on request to help fight Rome’s many wars. In return, allies were guaranteed security and a share of the very considerable spoils of victory. They also had the right to benefit from land assignations and to join or found coloniae.
With the acquisition of a large overseas empire, the terms of advantage changed. The regular taxes paid by new provinces were monopolized by the Roman exchequer. Colonization dried up and, although Tiberius Gracchus recognized that Italians were as much in need of succor as Roman citizens, his reforms had meant a loss of ager publicus in their territories.
Just as observant Romans recognized the case for land reform, they also saw that something would have to be done to quiet the allied communities and compensate them for their economic losses. One of these was Scipio Aemilianus, to whom allied landowners made representations. They objected to having a Roman commission interfere with their local property rights, and Scipio arranged for their cases to be considered by the consul; that official, however, knew what a thankless task he had been given and immediately went abroad to his province.
Scipio had already caused offense by his opposition to Tiberius Gracchus, and his sympathy for the allies only compounded his unpopularity with the urban mob, which saw no reason to make concessions to “foreigners.” His political enemies claimed that he was set on undoing Tiberius’s agrarian law and was plotting an armed massacre. With the city in this ill-tempered mood, few were surprised when, in 129, Scipio was found dead, his body unmarked. Intending to write a speech that night which he was due to deliver at a meeting of the Assembly, he had a notebook beside him.
The rumor mill got to work. Perhaps Cornelia, the mother of the Gracchi (as she now certainly was known), had killed Scipio to prevent a repeal of her son’s legislation. Very probably, word went, her daughter Sempronia had aided and abetted her; she was Scipio’s wife, but unloved because of her ugliness and her childlessness. Others claimed that Scipio had committed suicide in the realization that he could not accomplish what he had undertaken to do. Apparently, Scipio’s slaves were put to the torture (this was the rule when a paterfamilias was murdered). They confessed, it was said, that strangers had been brought into the back of the house and had strangled their master.
Scipio may have been murdered, but if the reports of how he was found and the appearance of his body are correct, it is more likely that he succumbed to a heart attack or a stroke. In any case, he was dead, and despite the distinction of his career public opinion would not allow him the honor of a state funeral.
FOR SOME YEARS after his brother’s killing, Gaius had stayed away from the Forum and the alarms of public life. But he disliked having nothing to do and was uninterested in the sexual promiscuity, drinking, and moneymaking practiced by many of his peers. He enjoyed army life but lost his temper when his commission as quaestor in Sardinia was unfairly extended. He sailed away to Rome in a rage. Charged with dereliction of duty, he easily cleared himself with a powerful speech in his defense. He had already served longer than the law required, he pointed out, and added, “I am the only man in the army who entered the campaign with a full purse, and left it with an empty one. My colleagues brought amphorae of wine with them which they drank on service, and then took back home with them, stuffed with silver and gold.”
Supporters of reform kept prompting him to stand for tribune, and conservative senators let it be seen how much they feared that he would. Tiberius was said to have appeared to Gaius in a dream and said, “However much you try to defer your destiny, you must die the same death that I suffered.” His mother was no ghost, and expressed her disapproval. A letter of hers has survived in which she tells her son, “Apart from those who killed Tiberius Gracchus, no enemy has caused me so many troubles and so many labors as you. As my only surviving son, you should have taken trouble and care that I should have the fewest anxieties in my old age.”
Gaius refused Cornelia’s pleas and bowed to the inevitable. He was elected tribune in 123.
In a sign that times were slowly changing, he had no trouble getting reelected for a second year and he introduced a far-reaching catalog of reforms. First of all, he appeased his brother’s spirit by introducing two new laws. The first banned anyone who had been deposed from public office from serving again in any capacity. This was obviously aimed at Octavius, but, according to Plutarch, Cornelia made representations and persuaded her son to withdraw it. This magnanimous gesture delighted public opinion.
Second, a bill was passed forbidding any capital trials without the Assembly’s approval. Anyone found to have deprived a citizen of his civic rights through execution or exile, as if he were an enemy of the state, was to be arraigned before the People. The prohibitions were retrospective, and the former consul who chaired the commission that persecuted Tiberius’s followers in 132 was driven into exile. It was not simply that revenge was sweet; reactionary senators needed to be reminded of the dangers they faced if they ignored the will of the People.
Gaius reaffirmed Tiberius’s land act but exempted some ager publicus from redistribution, perhaps so that it could be leased to non-Romans. He also announced the foundation of three coloniae in Italy and one in northern Africa, on the desolate site of Carthage. This last was to be named Junonia, or Juno’s Place (a tactful nod in the direction of the goddess?). It was a controversial project to countermand the recently dead Aemilianus’s curse and, in the event, the sheep pastures of Carthage were left undisturbed. Plans were commissioned for the building of new roads across Italy. All these measures would have the effect of alleviating unemployment.
The burgeoning city of Rome required reliable and copious supplies of grain, imported from Africa and Sicily. When harvests failed, famine followed. Food riots imperiled government. Gaius arranged permanent stockpiles of grain as an insurance policy against shortages and set a bargain price for its sale to citizens.
The tribune turned his attention to corruption in public life. He passed laws against fraud and theft by governors of provinces, and a special extortion court, quaestio de repetundis, heard cases in front of a jury of senators. The conviction rate was low, because the jurors were often friends of the defendants. Gaius decided to put this right by asking equites, originally Rome’s cavalry but now men possessing the next property qualification beneath that of senators, to share jury service. Then, on second thought, senators were barred altogether from serving on juries, which now consisted entirely of equites.
This was not all that Gaius did to the advantage of equites. The class had grown in economic importance in recent years. Some were country landowners uninterested in entering national politics, but a growing number were prosperous businessmen. The Republic had little in the way of a civil service, and indirect revenue collection (customs dues and the like) was contracted out to companies, or societates of equites; they also won commissions for public works, the construction of public buildings and roads, and the provision of military supplies. Of course, senators were not allowed to engage directly in trade, but provincial governors, proconsuls, and propraetors were responsible for the collection of direct taxes, a profitable opportunity for the practise of extortion. However, to ensure an adequate inflow to pay for his reforms, the tribune put the collection of direct taxes in the wealthy new province of Asia up for auction. This was a plum concession for commercial interests, as well as a vote of no confidence in senatorial probity.
These measures all served immediate, sometimes urgent purposes, but in the longer run Gaius probably intended to encourage the growth of a wealthy nonpolitical class as a counterweight to the aristocracy in the Senate, and if that was not his intention it was certainly the result.
Other constitutional and administrative changes were made. As ever, honesty and efficiency were the watchwords. Gaius had a larger and more all-embracing vision than his brother. His reforms were a comprehensive political program. In fact, when he was out and about in the Forum it was as if he were a government; Plutarch reports him as being “closely attended by a throng of contractors, technicians, ambassadors, officials, soldiers and literary men.” Although nowhere did he say this, it is clear that he was aiming to rebalance the constitution in the direction of popular sovereignty.
However, there is no evidence that he wanted to emasculate or even abolish the Senate; rather, his idea was to purify the Senate and make it more responsive to the interests of the People. He shared something of Cato’s disgust with the activities of the ruling élite and of Scipio Aemilianus’s commitment to fair treatment for the provinces. He was a radical, not a revolutionary.
DURING HIS SECOND term, Gaius grasped the nettle of allied resentment. He could see from Aemilianus’s fate that it would be hard to win public opinion to the Italian cause. A colleague of his on the tribunician bench had tabled a proposal, while serving as consul a few years earlier, to grant citizenship to any allied community that wanted it and, for those who didn’t, the right of appeal against Roman officials. The Senate was nervous and dispatched the consul to Gaul in response to a conveniently timed call from the port of Massilia for military assistance. The matter had had to be dropped.
The tribune would have been wise to let leave well alone, but the danger of serious disaffection across Italy was too great to ignore. He proposed that communities with Latin status (that is, a second-class citizenship—see this page) should be awarded the full franchise, and that plain and simple allies should receive Latin status. The Roman mob was displeased, and there was heated opposition in the Senate.
One of the consuls led the assault, deploying the fear-inducing slogans of the anti-immigrant campaigner through the ages. He declaimed:
I suppose you imagine that, if you give Latins the citizenship, there will still be room for you in the Assembly where you are standing now, and seats at the games and festivals. Don’t you realize that they will swamp everything?
A fellow tribune, working for the Senate, trumped Gaius with a populist package designed to satisfy both the People’s Assembly and Italian opinion. This was approved but (as intended, no doubt) never implemented, and Gaius’s bill failed. The only practical resultof the initiative was his rising unpopularity among the city’s masses.
He failed to win a third term as tribune, and his opponents at once began to unpick his legislation. He had recently returned from a visit to Carthage to make arrangements for the building of Junonia, and at a crowded Assembly on the Capitol one of the new tribunes for 121 attacked the law authorizing it. Now that the crisis had arrived, Cornelia set aside her opposition to her son and helped him recruit bodyguards. These hired men lurked on the outskirts of the meeting, with Gaius walking up and down a portico in a nervous frame of mind. He may have intended only to observe the debate, but it is possible that he planned to disrupt the meeting.
Fate then played a wild card. A servant of Lucius Opimius, one of the consuls, bared his arm and made an insulting gesture. An overexcited Gracchan stabbed him fatally with a writing stylus. This was just the pretext the consul was hoping for. He immediately went to the Senate and persuaded it to vote a state of emergency. This was the first time that what came to be called the Final Decree, or senatus consultum ultimum, was passed. The Senate resolved: “Let the consuls see to it the Republic comes to no harm,” (“Videant consules ne quid detrimenti res publica caperet”).
This vague formula was understood to give senior officeholders the power to use lethal force against malefactors who were endangering the state. But did the Senate actually have the power to suspend a Roman citizen’s constitutional rights? The answer depended on a man’s political point of view, on the emotion of the moment. If we look at the issue dispassionately, the Senate was, in the final resort, an advisory body and its resolutions had no legal force. A consul had imperium, but the law insisted that he could not execute citizens without trial (reinforced by Gaius Gracchus’s own recent legislation); this was because they had the right of appeal, of provocatio, to the People. In practice, few would disobey a serving consul’s command, but he was wise to remember that, once out of office, he was subject to the courts and the anger of the Assembly.
Such fine considerations were of little interest in the heat of the present moment. Opimius called on senators to arm themselves, and for all equites to turn up the following morning with two armed servants. Rome passed an uneasy night. In the morning, the Gracchans seized the Aventine Hill, the traditional refuge of plebeian agitators through the ages. Gaius refused to arm himself (except for a dagger) and left home wearing a toga as if it were a normal day and he were just going down to the Forum on routine business.
After unsuccessful negotiations, Opimius had some archers loose their arrows into the crowds on the Aventine, throwing them into confusion. Gaius, furious at what was happening, took no part in the fighting. He walked up the broad steps of the Temple of Diana, standing high on its plateau on the hilltop, and entered the precinct. Ironically, the shrine was devoted to community, sanctuary, and arbitration, attributes not on offer that day. Gaius was so depressed that he considered taking his own life, but his companions confiscated his dagger and urged him to escape.
With enemies close behind, Gaius, a slave, and two friends ran across the narrow wooden footbridge spanning the Tiber, the Pons Sublicius. The friends halted and turned round at the head of the bridge, where, like Horatius and his companions, they fought their pursuers in order to give Gaius time to make a getaway. But they were soon overwhelmed.
Bystanders watched Gaius run to the other side of the river. They told him to hurry up, but offered no help. When he called for a horse, nobody gave him one. On being caught, the slave with him threw his arms around his master and had to be killed as well. (Another version of Gaius’s end has him finally succeed in committing suicide.) Gaius’s head was cut off and taken to Opimius, who had promised to reward the bearer with its weight in gold. Some say Gaius’s killer gouged out his brains and replaced them with lead to make the head heavier.
FOR ALL THE brothers’ good intentions the Gracchan episode was a disaster. Their policies were rational, and ultimately much of their legislation passed into the body of Roman law. The economic consequences of their land reforms were beneficial. The Senate reacted to the brothers rather like a general faced with a mutiny, who concedes most of the grievances but executes the ringleaders.
However, the constitutional results of their efforts were overwhelmingly negative. The Italians were more embittered than ever, through the Assembly the People had stretched their muscles, and for the first time the equites had become aware of their own strength vis-à-vis the Senate. Before the Gracchi, nobody had realized that the Republic could be governed from the tribunes’ bench. Both the Senate and the People had been shown to act with breathtaking selfishness, always consulting their own rather than the public interest.
The Roman constitution was a complicated contraption of levers and balances, with obsolete pieces of machinery left in place alongside modern additions. Its management called for sensitivity, imagination, and, above all, an ability to accommodate, to concede, to compromise. For centuries, these qualities among Rome’s politicians had drawn the admiration, reluctant or full-hearted, of friend and foe.
Now, though, the tragic trajectory of the Gracchi exposed the Republic for what it had become, an unstable and uncreative monster. It is no accident that, in his Civil Wars, Appian chose this moment at which to begin his story. He observed:
No sword was ever brought into the assembly, and no Roman was ever killed by a Roman, until Tiberius Gracchus … became the first man to die in civil unrest, and along with him a great number of people who had crowded together on the Capitol and were killed around the temple. The disorders did not end even with this foul act; on each occasion when they occurred the Romans openly took sides against each other, and often carried daggers; from time to time some elected official would be murdered in a temple, or in the assembly, or in the Forum—a Tribune or Praetor or Consul, or a candidate for these offices, or somebody otherwise distinguished. Undisciplined arrogance soon became the rule, along with a shameful contempt for law and justice.
The mother of the Gracchi left Rome after Gaius’s death. She settled in Misenum, a narrow isthmus culminating in a rocky outcrop at the northern end of the Bay of Naples. It had beautiful views and was off the beaten track. However, Cornelia did not hide herself away and made no alteration to the gregarious brilliancy of her lifestyle. Plutarch reports: “She had many friends and because of her love of visitors kept a good table. She always had Greeks and intellectuals as guests, and all the reigning monarchs exchanged gifts with her.”
It made her happy to reminisce about her father’s life and character. Remarkably, she spoke of her sons without any tears or displays of emotion and discussed their careers and sad ends as if she were referring to immemorial statesmen from Rome’s first centuries.
Cornelia survived her lost jewels for more than ten years, dying at the turn of the century. She was lucky not to witness the fulfillment of their legacies.